April 9, 2012
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - The Fayetteville State Lady Broncos could've rolled over. They could've quit.
The end could've come when the injuries robbed them of half the starting lineup in the season's first three weeks. They could've thrown their hands into the air when three starters were lost in one nonconference doubleheader. At one point they were 0-27, having played a brutal schedule that included matchups against nationally ranked teams and prestigious programs. Even with the CIAA schedule looming, they could've thrown in the towel, figuring "What's the point?"
Instead, the Lady Broncos kept fighting, and in the process, got healthier and came together as a team. Players who were pressed into duty earned starting roles even after the team became whole again, and once back in the comforts of league play, Fayetteville State skyrocketed through the standings.
And now, just a week away from the CIAA Softball Tournament, the Lady Broncos are playing their best softball of the season.
And the league is taking notice.
On Monday, the Lady Broncos earned their first weekly league awards of the season, with Tia Caldwell (Fr., Newport, N.C.) earning CIAA Pitcher of the Week honors and the architect of the season turnaround, head coach Miguel "Coach Who" Justiniano, earning Coach of the Week accolades.
"This team has never given up and has always shown a tremendous will to fight and go on," said Coach Who, who has guided the Lady Broncos to a spot in the eight-team CIAA Tournament each season since 2008. "And they're not done yet."
Left for dead two-thirds of the way through the season, the Lady Broncos, who host Mt. Olive in a doubleheader to close the regular season on Tuesday, clinched the No. 2 seed out of the Southern Division after sweeping St. Augustine's in Fayetteville State's finial regular season CIAA games of the year. Now 10-6 in league play and 8-3 in the division, the Lady Broncos are riding a four-game winning streak and have won five of their last six games.
A lot of that has to do with Coach Who keeping the ship on the right course and the big picture in mind. But the players have stuck with it as well, including Caldwell, who joined the team midseason.
Caldwell was brilliant last week, finishing it 3-0 and recording a save. She set a new career-high with 16 strikeouts in a dominant win over Livingstone and worked three perfect innings in picking up a save against St. Augustine's, fanning six. Caldwell was one out away from a perfect game in her start against St. Augustine's, whiffing 12 as she tallied 40 strikeouts in just 24 innings.
She improved to 5-2 in CIAA games and lowered her ERA in conference games to just 1.50. Caldwell, who has struck out 113 in 93 innings, has whiffed 88 in just 54 innings pitched in league games. She is holding opponents to a .148 batting average in CIAA play and has given up just six extra base hits.
Caldwell leads the CIAA with three saves, a 2.86 ERA and is third in total strikeouts despite working fewer than 100 innings. (Virginia State's Jessica Mattia, who leads the CIAA with 170 strikeouts, has pitched 179.2 innings.)
With five wins, Caldwell shares the team lead with Rebecca Polaschek (So., Raeford, N.C.), who battled through the long days to emerge a better pitcher in league play. Polaschek sports a 3.86 ERA in CIAA games.
But it's been a total team effort, from Lashonda Washington (So., Hope Mills, N.C.) coming up with key hits after starting fewer than 10 games as a freshman to Jessica Randolph (So., Pinetops, N.C.) leading the team in RBI, with 21, five of which came in a win over Livingstone this week.
And then there's Maya Washington.
Washington (So., Red Springs, N.C.) has 13 hits in the last six games, including four extra base hits, and recorded three or more hits three times last week in leading Fayetteville State to a 5-1 record for the week, all in CIAA Southern Division games. Washington raised her batting average 50 points in six days, from .283 to a season-high .333, and did not strike out once in 24 plate appearances.
"She's a leader on an off the field," Coach Who said of Washington. "And when she's hitting, the team seems to take after her and starts hitting as well."
It's been quite a turnaround for a team that had everything thrown at it through most of the season.
"The plan all along was to be playing our best at the most important time, and right now we're doing that," said Coach Who. "We emerged from our tough start as stronger individuals and as a stronger team. I can't say enough about these girls. They are tough, they play together and they never quit."